What is Anger?
So many men seek out help and support from MANN uP for ‘anger management issues’. At lease that is what they present with (or is the ‘issue’ someone close to them has told them to go into counselling to address).
Often by the time these males reach therapy they have either self-adopted (or had imposed by others) a ‘label’ of being an angry, volatile and out-of-control individual.
Not unsurprisingly, this is mainly not perceived as a positive way to be defined, so those clients, not only have the challenge of grappling with intense feelings which currently seem beyond their control and/or understanding, they also have to deal with the stigma and shame of being seen as an ‘angry man’.
So what is Anger? The (Cambridge Dictionary) defines anger as: “A strong feeling that makes you want to hurt someone or be unpleasant because of something unfair or unkind that has happened”.
This definition has three key parts to it when examining anger:
- It is a strong feeling.
- It can generate an impulse that you want to hurt someone or be unpleasant.
- It tends to be activated because something unfair or unkind had happened.
Firstly anger is an emotion, we all experience those as human beings and that is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. No human being can be ‘emotionless’ and striving to be so can in itself be detrimental and lead to a state of emotional avoidance and/or detachment which can often further complicate life.
So being angry can generate an impulse to want to hurt another or be unpleasant. If each and everyone of us is honest within ourselves, there are occasions when we have a thought or impulse to want to hurt/be unpleasant to another. That too is human, and does make anyone experiencing that impulse a ‘monster’. If we judge or criticise ourselves for having that impulse, this only increases the risk that the ‘desire to hurt’ will be turned inwards in the form of self-loathing or some other more tangible form of ‘self-harm’.
The third part of the definition is key when it comes to understanding and starting to work with feelings of anger, that is that it tends to be activated because something unfair or unkind has happened. Life and people are not always fair and kind, so how does and should any human being react when treated unfairly or unkindly?
Do we ‘turn the other cheek’, striving to ignore and dismiss every instance when another is unfair/unkind to us? Fair play to the calm and controlled individual who can and wants to do that, however, if we have experienced or been exposed to some form of ‘injustice’ is it not right and natural to want to ‘call that out’ to help ensure it does not continue or happen again to us or to another?
Think about civil rights, equality and social justice campaigns and campaigners, are they not about standing up to what is unfair and unkind, if others had not got ‘angry’ and stood up to those ‘injustices’ where would our society be today?
Think about individuals or who been on the receiving end of some ‘injustice’, do we not want them to get ‘angry’ and stand up for their right to be treated with equality, dignity and respect?
Often times it is not the anger (the emotion or the impulse to respond to a perceived ‘injustice’) that in itself is the issue, it is the way in which the emotion and impulse are responded to and acted upon that are problematic. For clients experiencing difficulty understanding and controlling their anger, that is an important distinction on the road to improvement.
As a practice that focuses on male-affirmative practice, what soon becomes apparent when working with male clients with ‘anger issues’ is that to some extent in almost every case, the outdated stereotypes of masculinity that still permeate our society can contribute to those issues by articulating that for men, to show emotion or vulnerability is ‘weak’ and that the only ‘socially acceptable’ emotion for males to display is anger. Either as a means to display their dominance and strength or more usually, as a means to ‘mask’ the fear which is actual emotion that has been activated.
(Psychology Today) published an interesting read on how anger may often be used by men to disguise fear.
With any client presenting with ‘anger management issues’ the key is to help them understand what is activating their feelings of anger, educating them to choose how to process and respond to that activation, empowering them with techniques to handle their anger when activated and to harness that activation as a means to learn and grow on a personal level, in turn improving their relationship with self and others.
What Can Activate Anger?
If we look at the cognitive behavioural cycle, the perspective is here that thoughts, feelings and actions are interconnected and often our emotional and behavioural reactions to a ‘stimulus’ are influenced by our thoughts. From working with clients, there anger is often activated by a conscious or unconscious thought of ‘injustice’ relating to one or more of the following three areas:
- Values/Beliefs Attack: A person who thinks that another is disrespecting, devaluing or undermining deeply personal and strongly held beliefs or values they might find their anger response being activated by this.
- ‘Fight’ Reaction: Many of us have heard of the Flight, Fight, Freeze reaction triad to a perceived threat or stressor to an individual’s wellbeing as outlined on the (Betterhelp website). If an individual thinks that their wellbeing is being threated or attacked by someone/something anger can be activated as a ‘defensive’ strategy against that ‘attack’. What becomes apparent in client work is that many times the threat to wellbeing does not need to be a physical one (i.e. someone coming at you with a weapon) it can be a threat to a client’s self-concept or self-esteem that can trigger this defensive response.
- Hurt and Fear: If a person thinks another has done something to hurt them, anger can be activated as a reaction to that perceived ‘injustice’. If we are fearful of someone or something, tied it with the above ‘fight’ reaction, anger can be deployed as a means to ‘puff out our chest’ and ‘look big and strong’ to help reduce the perceived threat of being hurt.
Handling and Responding to Activation
We cannot always handle and control the world around us and everyone else in it. So often for clients the first step in learning how to ‘handle’ their anger is to gain insight into what has activated it and to stop, examine their thoughts and expand their thinking into why they feel angry and what they might like to do about it.
Is it a Values/Beliefs Attack: Ask yourself, has the other disrespected, devalued or undermined one of your deeply held beliefs or values. If so, do they know you hold that belief/value? Did they do it intentionally? Do you need to help inform and educate them on why you have formed your belief/value to help inform/shift their opinions?
Is it the ‘Fight’ Reaction: Ask yourself, is your wellbeing actually under threat? If so, is it your physical wellbeing or your self-concept and/or self-esteem that is being threatened? Did the other party intend to threaten you? What is the most useful and least damaging way for you to respond it is to ‘fight’ (address the situation), ‘flight’ (withdraw from the interaction) or ‘freeze’ (show no immediate reaction)?
Is it Hurt and Fear: Ask yourself, did that person mean to hurt or intimidate you? If not, would it be useful to help educate them that their conduct is hurtful and/or intimidating? Will you ‘puffing out your chest’ help to diffuse the situation or could it actually exacerbate it?
Techniques for Handling Anger
At a Cognitive Level: Just because we have a thought does not necessarily mean it is true or valid. If you find yourself feeling angry, stop and take time to reflect on what you are thinking, not only in terms of becoming conscious of what thoughts might have activated your anger response, but also examine the validity of these thoughts.
At an Emotional Level: You are a human being, emotions are natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Learn to identify what you are feeling and when you identify the feeling is anger, take time to consider means to soothe or process that feeling in a manner that is least disruptive for you and/or others. Ignoring a feeling inside yourself is not likely to make it instantly go away, arguing with or battling a feeling of anger is not likely to diffuse the feeling either (indeed it might amplify it). Show your own feelings the respect they deserve and attempt to self-soothe, giving yourself time and space to let that emotion process and dissipate.
At a Behavioural Level: Anger will generate a chemical reaction on the body which can lead to you feeling ‘supercharged’ and ‘restless’ and tense. Just because your experiencing a feeling of anger does not mean you have to act on it in an aggressive or confrontational manner, how you act is your choice. If you are experiencing physical tension, why not choose another means to work off the physical tension on your body, divert into something like going for a walk or taking some other form of physical exercise or activity.
Learn and Grow
Nobody is perfect and one thing that never helps any client to move forward and grow is holding fast to the ‘label’ that they are an ‘angry man’. Let go of that ‘label’ and the self-judgement and shame that often accompany it and instead make a commitment to embarking of a journey of personal discovery and growth which will see you aspire to better understand and respect yourself and attempt to try to take more conscious control over what you do and how you live your life. As opposed to trying to ‘control’ your feelings.
See if there is a Pattern with Your ‘Triggers’: Thinking about what can activate anger (a values/belief attack, the ‘fight’ reaction or hurt and fear), examine instances in your life when anger comes to the fore to see if there is a pattern that emerges. Understanding what ‘triggers’ your anger can help you either avoid such activators and/or help you come up with a conscious plan of action for what you can and will do when presented with those activators.
Tackle any Underlying Cause: If there is a pattern that emerges, does that point to an underling cause or issue that needs to be attended to and addressed. For example, if you notice a lot of your anger activation seems connected to a perception of others demeaning your values and beliefs, would a re-examination and strengthening of why you hold those values and beliefs help bolster your own self-esteem to help you withstand the ‘attacks’ of others.
Decide Which ‘Battles to Fight’: Feeling angry and/or acting on it can demand a lot of time and energy and put you and/or others at very real risk of harm. It is ok to feel angry, but not every fight it worth fighting. Decide for yourself where you want to expend your energies and which ‘battles’ are worth fighting. It may be if you encounter bigoty or a social injustice, this is something you need to use anger to do something about. It may not be as necessary to act on your anger if the person in front of you on the road is driving a too slow.
Consider How Substances Interact with Your Anger: If you are feeling tense and on edge, stimulant substances (such as caffeine or cocaine) are only likely to amplify that feeling. A lot of clients tend to gravitate towards use of ‘depressive’ substances (alcohol or marijuana) in an attempt to ‘self-medicate’ by supressing feels including anger. However these substances can also reduce cognitive processes and lower inhibitions, making us more vulnerable to impulsive and volatile actions,
Don’t ‘Hurt’ Yourself: Just because you get angry does not make you a bad person and does not mean you need to be ‘punished’. It is am emotion, you are human, even if how you handle that emotion is currently out of control, please not judge or ‘hurt’ yourself for experiencing that lack of control. Physically or mentally abusing yourself for feeling angry will only lead to an increase in self-loathing, which can itself activate further anger. Resolve to break that cycle now, shift your energies away from judgement towards understanding and an increased level of control. You may not be able to control what you feel, but you can learn to control how you act on those feelings.
Find Harmless Ways to Vent Anger: You will get angry at times in your life, everyone does. Anger is not in itself a bad thing, it can be a ‘signal’ that we feel ‘wronged’, under ‘attack’ or we are feeling fearful. Usually the issue is not the feeling, rather it is the ‘acting out’ of that feeling, or the huge amount of effort it requires to suppress it. Take control here too. Find a harmless means to vent feelings of anger, a punchbag night be a useful addition to your home gym.
Learn the Art of Assertiveness: Nobody is saying you have to put up with bring devalued, demeaned or ‘attacked’ by others. You deserve to be treated with dignity, respect and fairness. On occasions when this does not happen, model the skill of assertiveness rather than aggression. Assertiveness is about standing up for yourself, what you believe in and your rights in a mature, articulate and mutually respectful manner.
The (GetSelfHelp website) has a very useful free factsheet on assertiveness.
Sources of Insight and Wisdom About Anger
The (Mind website)